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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Export Control Organisation

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the future of the Export Control Organisation; and if he will make a statement. (105372)

The Government considered whether to outsource export licensing activities last year. The outcome was a decision not to proceed with outsourcing, which was reflected in an announcement in the House on 21 July 2005. There have been no other ministerial discussions on the future of the Export Control Organisation.

Despite our Government’s stated intent not to sell arms in conflict zones, to regimes that abuse human rights, or to the poorest countries on the planet, the Defence Export Services Organisation is still dealing with Sri Lanka and Uganda in the first category, Israel and Indonesia in the second, and Nigeria and Pakistan in the third. Does the Minister agree that we should launch a coup against DESO and install the Export Control Organisation in the Ministry of Defence so that we can start to build, at last, an ethical defence and foreign policy?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. We apply the most rigorous criteria for all countries involved in that environment. I can tell my hon. Friend that all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. If an export is considered inconsistent with the criteria, a licence will not be issued. The criteria are robust and we apply them rigorously.

When the Government responded in October to the report on strategic export controls published by the Quadripartite Committee, Ministers emphasised that

“the Government takes very seriously the control of defence exports and behaviour of UK companies … in this area”.

With those words ringing in his ears, will the Minister reassure the House that the Serious Fraud Office will be given every encouragement to continue its work investigating the deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, and that when it has done so and proper process has been followed, its report will be made available to the House?

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was aware that that is not a matter for me and also that he was fully aware that it is inappropriate to discuss an ongoing police investigation or any other matter in the judicial process. However, I note the direction from which the hon. Gentleman is coming—it is another attack on British industry. I am conscious of the fact that one of his party’s senior defence spokespeople said that aircraft carriers would be better built in the United States—yet another instance of the Liberals not wanting British industry to succeed.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concerns that, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk from Bristol to Lancashire, whether at Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems or Thornycroft, the bottom line is that we have to ensure that the SFO completes its investigations. After two and a half years, we need early completion to ensure that those jobs are not lost or put at risk. Will my right hon. Friend give some support to British industry and ensure that, while we recognise export credit controls, British interests are kept alive?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate of those industries both in his own constituency and more widely in the United Kingdom. He constantly raises legitimate matters of concern. He is also a strong supporter of our defence industrial strategy, and the Government are determined to make sure that both our manufacturing base and our defence sector are strong. Those who say that we should not be exporting are arguing against that principle, and I know that my hon. Friend does not share that point of view.

Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministry will need to take particular care where there is a risk of execution, torture or cruel or degrading treatment, will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether, if there were a proposed export to Sudan either of a piece of defence equipment, or indeed of a pair of handcuffs, it would be resisted?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details about that, because we have to look at the issues on a case-by-case basis. However, I would say instinctively that if approval was being sought in a case where the use was for torture or for malign ends, it would not get through our strict criteria. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that, will he please write to me and I will give him a more considered answer?

Although not everyone supports arms exports, does my right hon. Friend agree that they secure many highly skilled jobs in the UK, and that as a result of the Export Control Act 2002, introduced by the Labour Government, we have one of the most comprehensive export control systems anywhere in the world?

I agree entirely and I tried to set that out in my earlier answers. I think that we can hold our heads high in respect of the way we approach this matter. It is correct that what we do is always under scrutiny on a case-by-case basis within Departments and we have to take into the balance the impact on employment and this country’s manufacturing base. These are not easy judgments to make and there are occasions on which applications are refused. We try to help the industry by providing an early answer. We will continue to apply the rigorous provisions that I set out earlier.

Munitions Supplies

2. What arrangements are in place to ensure the availability of adequate quantities of high quality munitions for the armed forces. (105373)

There are sufficient quantities of high-quality ammunition to meet operational requirements in all theatres. Ammunition is accepted into service with UK armed forces only after it has passed an extensive qualification programme addressing both performance and safety. Careful stock-pile management then ensures that the right quantities of the right types of ammunition are available to meet operational needs. That is achieved through a combination of extensive forward planning, close liaison with operational force commanders and detailed analysis of historic usage.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that for his Department to have justified sending to our troops in Afghanistan a batch of ammunition that was known to have a potentially lethal fault, on the grounds that it would have been irresponsible to hold it back owing to insufficient stocks of properly functioning ammunition, demonstrates yet again the unacceptable risks that our troops are exposed to as a result of inadequate resources, complacency and incompetence on the part of Ministers?

If that were the case, I would stand here guilty, but it is not. The hon. Gentleman should listen to explanations that have been given by the Ministry of Defence, not to what has been said in the press. What we are saying does not accord with his analysis.

Do Defence Ministers feel any scintilla of embarrassment at the fact that four former Chiefs of the General Staff, as well as the present incumbent, have publicly and strongly damned every aspect of MOD policies in respect of arms supplies, general administration and armaments—the policies of a Department over which those Ministers are supposed to preside?

We have very good and honest relations with current Chiefs of Staff and we keep in close liaison with previous ones, all of whom have the freedom to express a point of view, but all of whom were part of the planning process that I set out in my earlier answer.

I listened to the Minister’s earlier answer with great interest. The fact remains that troops on operations have found that their weapons have jammed because the quality of the ammunition provided was simply not good enough. Has the Minister any idea what it is like to fire a weapon and find that it jams in his hands? If he has not, I have.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not a military man, but I have fired rifles and I have been a Minister long enough to have been through all the testing that we had to do to improve the SA80. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). The jamming of machine guns was not the result of the ammunition, but because of a fault in a particular part of the equipment, which has now been rectified. When we discover that a piece of equipment is not functioning, it is immediately replaced with new equipment. It has not happened in the way that Conservative Members have set out. I must also say that all the ammunition that we buy has been consistently up to NATO standards. Of the particular type of ammunition mentioned, 680,000 rounds have been fired in both operational and training terms.

We all saw the video on You Tube and know what position those two soldiers were in with their malfunctioning bullets or weapons. Last week, the former Chief of the General Staff said:

“Military operations cost in blood and treasure … It is our soldiers who pay the cost in blood; the nation must therefore pay the cost in treasure”.

Does the Minister agree that that includes giving our soldiers bullets and guns that work?

I am really surprised at this line of approach. I have already answered the question twice and said that it did not happen in the way in which it was set out in the media, so there is no point in continuing running this theme. A soldier who used that equipment could, on listening to our debate, become convinced that there was a fault with the ammunition. There is not. It is up to NATO standards. A fault was discovered with the machine gun, but it was rectified. Where such a fault manifests itself, the actual piece of equipment is then replaced. I ask Opposition Members, who are asking extensive questions about this, actually to read the answers that we give them.

Territorial Army

The number of new recruits into the Territorial Army remains relatively high, but we are not complacent and we continue to focus our efforts on improving TA manning, which is a key priority for the commander of regional forces. A number of key initiatives have been and are being introduced to improve recruitment and retention, including project one Army recruiting, which is designed to provide greater integration and coherence between the TA and the Regular Army recruiting offices and which will begin in April 2007; future marketing campaigns that specifically target the TA; and more fundamentally, the changes introduced to the TA structures, which are already having a positive impact on TA manning levels.

Does the Minister acknowledge that recruitment to the TA is increasingly hampered by the fact that employers are reluctant to take on TA soldiers, who may be called upon to undertake long tours of duty overseas? What steps are the Government taking to protect the employment prospects of those brave men and women, who are serving their country?

I recently met a group of east midlands employers at a reception in the Ministry of Defence and had a good talk to them about the various issues. They represented both the private and public sector, and all of them were very positive. Of course, it is very important that employers continue to support our reservists and TA, and we continue to be in dialogue with them. Very few people have a real problem with their future employment; but clearly, we monitor the issue regularly.

May I tell the Minister that, this weekend, I spent some time with the former Gurkhas who have come to live in Thurrock—and very welcome they are, too? They tell me that the prospect of their joining the TA after retiring as regulars has never been offered to them, and it occurs to me—I put it to the Minister—first, that Gurkhas should be so invited and, secondly, that there must be a big reservoir of former regulars who are not formally approached about rejoining through the TA. They could produce a cadre of well trained, highly professional and motivated skilled soldiers. I particularly commend the Gurkhas to him. We could have Gurkha territorial companies or have them in the mainstream Army.

I join my hon. Friend in praising the work, professionalism and courage of the Gurkhas in the British Army, in which, of course, they have a long history. He may be confused about the issue of nationality and when people become eligible, so I am happy to write to him to give him some more detail.

I remind the House of my interest. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 gives some protection to TA soldiers who are on mobilised service to go back to their jobs, but it does not give any guarantee of promotion. Some TA soldiers are now coming back from their second or third operational tour and facing a decision about sacrificing their primary career to continue with their secondary career. Given that fact, does not the Minister feel that the current level of TA mobilised service is simply unsustainable?

I obviously recognise the service that the hon. Gentleman has given and place that fact on record. Currently, about 1,300 reservists are mobilised—about 3.7 per cent. of the strength—but I recognise the important point that he makes. Last week, when I visited Germany, I talked to reservists about some of the employment issues that they may face. Of course, that is something that we continue to work on. As I told the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), most employers are very good and very supportive. Of course, when the reservists and TA go back, they take with them a lot of good skills and experience that can be used in the world of commerce and business, and so on. We should obviously praise that and highlight it. I obviously take account of what the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) says, and we continue to do such things when we are in dialogue with employers.

The TA in my constituency has, as my hon. Friend knows, provided front-line medical support to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a wonderful credit not only to the TA but to its relationship with the national health service, from which many of those people come. Will my hon. Friend come to meet those people in Ellesmere Port? Many more people in the NHS could be persuaded to join the TA, and a visit from him could encourage them to do so.

The simple answer is yes. I place on record my praise and thanks for the work that those people have been doing.

Does the Minister accept that there would be less pressure on recruiting people to the Territorial Army if more was done to retain those already in the TA? What are the Government doing about that?

There are a lot of initiatives in terms of retention and recruitment. As of 1 September 2006, the strength of the TA was 1.6 per cent. higher than it had been; we have seen an increase of about 500 people in the TA in the last 12 months. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report from the National Audit Office which was produced earlier this year, he will find that there is quite a lot of enthusiasm for staying in the TA. Some of those people have decided to join the regulars.

Kosovo

The UK contingent in Kosovo amounts to a total of 175 personnel, as part of NATO’s overall force of about 16,500. We intend to keep that level of commitment in place until the Kosovo settlement process has run its course and the security situation is considered to be stable and self-sustaining. Our next force level review is likely to take place in summer 2007, when it is anticipated that NATO will confirm its intentions for Kosovo.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that the critics of our intervention in the Balkans and Kosovo were totally wrong and that there are many Muslims and others alive today as a direct result of British, US, NATO and European Union forces bringing peace and stability to that region?

I do. That is a good point. I was in Bosnia about two weeks ago with the Bosnian Defence Minister, on the very day when Bosnia was granted partnership for peace involvement with NATO. That shows an amazing step forward in a short time. When one considers what is happening in that country, and looks around and sees the developments that have taken place—not just in terms of defence restructuring, but across society—we should congratulate ourselves as a nation on what we did in the Balkans, not just in Bosnia, but in Kosovo. We can take great pride in it and that is how they view our contribution. Those who criticised us at the time should say sorry.

Does the Minister acknowledge that a significant number of people deployed in the Balkans are, and have been, members of the Territorial Army? The answer to the previous question was curiously complacent. The fact is that of the 42,000 people in the strategic defence review supposedly in the TA, currently 36,000 of them—

May I remind the Minister that I strongly supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo? Does he agree, for once, with General Sir Mike Jackson, who has pointed out that NATO has not had anything like the credit that it deserves for supporting Muslim rights, human rights and lives in those two parts of the world? Does he accept that there is a real danger that NATO may have to enforce any settlement after the results of the elections are known in January? Where are the troops going to come from to do that, given our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening sentiment. I pointed out that there are currently 16,500 NATO troops in Kosovo. Recently, there has been significant unrest on the street. All that has been dealt with well and contained. Clearly, judgments have to be made as we move towards that final status and those final negotiations. Given the strength and capabilities of that force of 16,500 in Kosovo—it would be a matter of military judgment whether that was sufficient—up until now, it has shown that it is able to stabilise that region and to deliver. Of course, increasingly we are getting more buy-in from the wider community in Kosovo. They want what everybody else wants in the Balkans: peace and security. They have it in their own hands to deliver it, but we will make sure that we continue to help them to achieve that. If it becomes difficult, as ever we will make sure that we succeed and those who are trying to destroy peace and stability will fail.

Arctic Star

To date, more than 6,500 applications for the new Arctic emblem have been processed and passed to the Veterans Agency for dispatch. As a result of the publicity from the many launch events that were held around the country—including, I understand, a successful one arranged by my hon. Friend in Nottingham—several hundred new applications have been received in recent weeks. Officials are working hard to process those applications, but the volume received means that it will take a few weeks to dispatch some of the emblems.

On behalf of Members of all parties who have campaigned for years to bring this injustice to an end and to get the Arctic convoy veterans properly recognised, may I put on record my thanks to the Minister and his predecessors for the effort that they put in to ensure that this injustice was righted? May I also put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State, who has clearly brought about a different attitude in the Department on these matters, particularly in the recognition of the people who were shot for desertion in the first world war and of the Arctic convoy veterans? The fact that the Secretary of State and his team have taken an interest in this makes a great difference.

First, may I praise the work that my hon. Friend has done over the years in campaigning on this matter? I cannot take any credit, because things were all done and dusted as I came into my post, so credit must go to my predecessors for the work that they had done. As he will recall, the launch event on HMS Belfast was a moving experience, because we met those veterans and listened to the stories of bravery, courage and the pure hardship that they had to go through. I am pleased that this news has been well received by those veterans.

Of course, we should recognise injustices in terms of campaign medals. Will the Minister consider rectifying a similar injustice in respect of those in Bomber Command who have not received a medal for their participation?

They did receive an operational medal for what they did. I want to put on record my recognition of the courage, perseverance and professionalism that they showed, but I cannot agree to what the hon. Lady is requesting.

May I tell my hon. Friend that I and a great many others were encouraged by a letter that he sent me on 24 November, in which he made it clear that he intends to be the veterans’ champion and to press the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to allow our servicemen who fought in Malaysia the right to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal? In making those representations, would it assist him if more right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House were to sign early-day motion 356, which is in my name, and early-day motion 375, which stands in the name of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates)?

I am aware of the work that my right hon. Friend has been doing on this issue and of the early-day motion that he tabled. He has made many representations to me. He will be aware, as I think he confirmed just now, that I have made clear what the veterans’ views and wishes on this issue are. I am sure that there will be ongoing discussions, but the Foreign Office takes the lead on this.

Afghanistan

I regularly receive representations on military equipment in Afghanistan from a wide range of sources, including hon. and right hon. Members of this House. We keep our deployment in Afghanistan under constant review to ensure that our armed forces have the equipment that they need.

The current Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, his immediate predecessor, Sir Mike Jackson, and Brigadier John Lorimer, who is due to take up command in Afghanistan next year, have all said that the Government are not providing sufficient armoured vehicles and helicopters for the operations in Helmand province. Those grave concerns have been dismissed by Ministers. I have constituents who have sons and daughters in Afghanistan. Whom should they trust—senior soldiers who have been in the military all their lives and who understand leadership, or Ministers, who know very little about the military and even less about leadership?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should trust a process that reviews not only the force strength but the equipment that our soldiers have in theatre. It has served this country well for decades. All senior members of the military, including all those who were and are Chiefs of the Defence Staff, make a contribution to and are involved in the decision-making process.

On the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s question, Brigadier Lorimer has made it publicly clear that he has not made any request for any equipment for Afghanistan that has been turned down. He and others know that a process is ongoing to review our deployment, force strength and equipment in Afghanistan. It is not yet concluded, and no decisions have yet been made.

The Secretary of State should know that these processes can be hurried up—they should be hurried up—and that there is a serious shortage of helicopter load and personnel carrying capacity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will he take steps immediately to find out what helicopters could be leased at short notice from the Americans, who have plenty of them and would be glad to let us have them?

We have already increased the size of the support helicopter force in Afghanistan, sending another two Chinooks since July, and we have increased flying hours. I have met the current commander of the UK taskforce, Brigadier Jerry Thomas, twice in recent months and he has confirmed to me that he has sufficient helicopter availability.

Speaking as a Conservative Member, let me tell the Secretary of State that we understand the difficulty and sensitivity of these matters. However, will he give the House an assurance this afternoon that there will be adequate armoured personnel carrying equipment in Afghanistan? I believe that we are asking our forces to put their lives at risk travelling in some of the vehicles that are currently used. Will he give the undertaking that I have requested to protect the lives of our personnel?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I directed an urgent review of the protected patrol vehicles in response to concerns relating to the evolving threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will recollect that on 24 July I announced that we were to invest more than £70 million additional resources in approximately 270 new vehicles for both theatres; they are all on track to be delivered as I announced. They include Vector vehicles, which are Pinzgauer vehicles; Mastiff vehicles, which are Cougar vehicles specially purchased from the United States of America; and Bulldog vehicles. I can give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal assurance that if the process, properly staffed up, as the phrase is, comes to me with a recommendation for additional armoured vehicles in Iraq or Afghanistan, I will respond to that request.

Is the Secretary of State seriously saying that senior officers, both those deploying imminently to Afghanistan and those in deployments to come, are not complaining about the lack of helicopter assets?

What I am saying to the House is that I have spoken twice to the current commander of our forces in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan about that very issue and twice put the question directly to him, and he has given me that assurance. I have no knowledge of the view on helicopter lift of any prospective commander of those forces. If such a prospective commander wants additional helicopters, he will, no doubt, make that request properly through the chain of command and it will come to me.

That is a most inadequate answer. As General Jackson put it last week,

“There is a mismatch between what we do and the resources we are given with which to do it”.

Today, the Secretary of State has hidden behind his commanders who say that they do not need anything, but he must know otherwise from speaking to people in the field. Today, I spoke to somebody who tells me that there are not adequate Apache spares. When will the Secretary of State invite the armed forces not to trust the process, but to trust him to deliver that which they need to do the job that the Prime Minister has given them?

In his speech, General Sir Mike Jackson used the adjective “Kafka-esque”. What is Kafka-esque about this situation is that the hon. Gentleman comes to the Dispatch Box against the background of having supported a Government who cut support to our armed forces in real terms by £500 million a year, but then complains that a Government who have provided £1 billion a year more progressively over their time in office are providing inadequate support to our troops. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, he knows that if he wants a specific matter to be dealt with, there is a way to do that. I have no knowledge of the matter that he has raised today having, he says, spoken to someone this morning. If he provides me with detailed information, I shall correct the inadequacy.

Trident

The Government have published a White Paper setting out our decisions and the arguments behind them. In the coming months, we are committed to supporting an informed debate on those decisions in public and in Parliament, including by the Select Committee on Defence. All of us will have the opportunity to evaluate the various contributions to that debate before Parliament considers and votes on the matter in spring.

Will the Secretary of State tell us by what means he intends the public to be informed about the legality, cost and operating costs of the Trident replacement? If there is huge public opposition to the expenditure and the proposal, how will he take that into account in any proposals that the Government introduce, and when does he expect his Department to bring the subject back before the House?

My hon. Friend is aware that the Government communicated their position on all the matters that he raises in the White Paper published last Monday; all those issues were dealt with in it. If he or other hon. Members, or any other person who wants to take part in the debate, needs additional information on any part of that White Paper, I will be happy for that information to be provided. My view, which is borne out in any measurement of public opinion, is that the public support the decision that the Government have indicated that they are prepared to take. As for the determination of the debate, my hon. Friend is aware that there will be a debate and a vote in the House in the spring.

What alternative systems of deterrence, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, did the Secretary of State and his Department consider before advising the Government to commit themselves to the next generation of Trident?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that we considered all alternatives. However, given the strategic threat that the deterrent is designed to deal with, the Government decided that a credible deterrent, able to face down that threat, would need to be of the nuclear variety, and would need invulnerability, so that it could continue as a sea deterrence. Such a threat could not be faced down by conventional forces.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the issues that people will be interested in is how the plans comply with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Will he tell the House what the Government’s position is on meeting those obligations?

The Government’s position is that the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our commitments under the non-proliferation treaty. The arguments to that effect are spelled out in the White Paper, and they were repeated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box last week. The article of the NPT that causes the most concern to people is article 6, but the Government have shown more of a commitment to the maintenance of their position and the fulfilment of their requirements under that treaty than any other Government in the United Kingdom, or indeed the world, have done. That is why, over the years, we have progressively been able to announce disarmament steps to minimise our deterrent until it reached its current position, and that is why we were able to announce a proposed further cut in warheads last week.

If the Scottish Parliament, clearly expressing the majority view of the Scottish people, votes against the stationing of Trident or any other nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, will the Secretary of State and the Government respect that decision?

I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman what his party’s position on the deterrent would be if the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people voted in the opposite way. Would his party continue to present the Scottish people with the alternative of a Government who would take them out of NATO, which has provided security for them for in excess of five decades? He is aware that the Scottish Parliament has determined that the matter should be reserved to this Parliament—although aspects of the subject, particularly those relating to the 11,000 jobs that the deterrent provides in the west of Scotland, are rightly matters for the Scottish Parliament. I look forward to the Scottish Parliament reflecting the view of the Scottish people, which is one of support for the maintenance of the deterrent.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that whatever the issue, the people who are against shout the loudest, so how will we evaluate the public response? Public opinion polls will recently have fallen out of favour with him, as they have done with me, so is it not a good idea to encourage Members to survey people in their local newspaper, as I intend to do in the Tamworth Herald, to gauge public response and feed it into the debate?

My hon. Friend is free to gauge his constituents’ views using any method that he thinks is indicative. I have a particular point of view, so it is not for me to determine how other people should contribute to the debate. However, I encourage all methods of contributing to the debate, which should be as wide and as detailed as possible. I am struck by the fact that most people who oppose the decision that the Government have put forward for debate are more interested in discussing the process than the details of the debate.

Eurofighter

8. What (a) operational and (b) overseas sales factors will determine the final production numbers of the Eurofighter Typhoon; and if he will make a statement. (105379)

The partner nations have undertaken, through international memorandums of understanding, to buy 620 aircraft in three tranches. That undertaking remains extant. The success of overseas sales campaigns undertaken by the partner nations will clearly have an impact on the final production numbers of Eurofighter Typhoon.

The Minister of State will understand that recent press reports commenting on the state of discussions between the United Kingdom Government and Saudi Arabia have caused concern among aerospace workers on the Eurofighter project, especially in the light of the comment by the chief executive of BAE Systems that discussions had “stalled”. Now that Ramadan has concluded, what specific steps will be taken by the Department, as the representative of the UK Government, to restart those talks so they that achieve a successful conclusion on a vital order?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of Lord Drayson’s active work, not just in the country that he mentioned but in wider markets. My noble Friend is in the United States looking at the joint strike fighter, and emphasising the importance of ensuring that we gain the proper understanding from the US, to take that project forward. The right hon. Gentleman cannot criticise what the Government have done to continue to market that plane and to extol its virtues wherever we find interest in it.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he would be wise to keep his options open on final production numbers for the Eurofighter Typhoon? If the Americans do not deliver the required technology transfer for the joint strike fighter, we should urgently consider flying the Typhoon off our new aircraft carriers.

We are back to the old conundrum of plan A and plan B. We have made it very clear to the United States that we want to be part of the JSF programme, that that technology transfer is needed, and that we must have sovereignty on that aircraft. If that does not happen, we have plan B.

But if the United States forced us to take the route of putting the Eurofighter Typhoon on our aircraft carriers, how many more of those aircraft would we have to build, and would that be affected by the Government’s recent decision on unmanned aerial vehicles? Should we not suggest to the Americans that they ought to listen very carefully indeed?

I do not know the answer to that, because we are not at that stage of examination. That is something that will happen when we reach that point, then we must decide the number that we require. Of course, that will be based on defence planning assumptions. Once that matter is addressed, it will help to determine the final decision. We are not yet at that stage, but clearly we will require a particular type of aircraft to fly off those aircraft carriers. That is what we have told the United States, and that is why we want the JSF. It is also why we are saying that if we do not get it, we have plan B.

St. Malo Agreement

I meet the French Defence Minister on a regular basis, including at meetings of EU Defence Ministers where, collectively, Ministers take forward work on the European security and defence policy consistent with the 1998 St. Malo declaration.

St. Malo was important because, for the first time, British and French Governments agreed to work together to improve the capabilities that are available not just for Britain in Europe but for the specific relationship with other EU countries. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the progress that has been made in implementing the principles of St. Malo, bearing in mind that there seems to have been a difference of opinion between him and the French Defence Minister over the funding of the European research initiative?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that from the outset the United Kingdom has consistently provided leadership to drive forward the capability development agenda, and we have been successful in ensuring that the ESDP develops in a way such as to be both supportive of and supported by NATO’s crisis management activities. Of course this is not a zero-sum game, given that the European Union allies are 19 of the 26 NATO allies. My right hon. Friend refers to a discussion that took place at the last meeting on the budget of the European Defence Agency. We do not have any dispute of principle with anyone else on the matter, but we do have a debate on the detail of how the principles are to be achieved, and in particular, on the operational budget that should be allocated. That does not reflect any lack of support from the UK for the agency—on the contrary, it shows our desire to see our scarce resources spent to best advantage.

Will the Secretary of State recommit himself to NATO, as opposed to the growing EU force that some countries are talking about? St. Malo and the Berlin-plus talks mean that many people based in Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe headquarters are double-hatting. An increasing emphasis is being placed on the EU to create its own military force. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that we will stand by NATO and not see an EU force develop?

I have no difficulty in giving the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he needs about us standing by NATO. However, we should recognise that there are areas in which the European Union can complement the work that NATO does, and we should examine these on a case-by-case basis, but we should take advantage of the opportunity that the ESDP provides to help improve the overall capability of all the members of the European Union, given that 19 of them are also members of NATO.

EU Defence Technological and Industrial Base

10. What assessment he has made of the merits of a European Union defence technological and industrial base. (105381)

We continually assess the merits of the European Union defence technology and industrial base against our specific requirements for the development, acquisition and support of defence equipment capability. Significant technology and industrial capability resides within a number of EU member states.

The European Commission has said that it intends to safeguard Europe’s technological and industrial base. It has made it clear that it intends to end the practice right across the European Union of trying to save defence jobs in the short term by exporting know-how and jobs in the longer term through so-called offset deals. What is my right hon. Friend’s position on that?

My position is clear, and it is consistent with my answers to earlier questions. We must ensure at all times that we have a strong, secure manufacturing and defence industry in this country. We have defined what we propose to do through the defence industrial strategy and the maritime industrial strategy. We have set a clear objective not just in the MOD, but alongside industry and with the support of the trade unions and the work force. But there is overcapacity in the EU and that must be addressed as well. We must move forward to make sure that we have a strong base both in the UK and in Europe because—let us be clear—other nations are beginning to strengthen their capabilities. To be able to compete, we need to be strong.

Can the Minister guarantee that all future defence systems that may emerge from European collaborative projects will be compatible with parallel defence systems deployed by the United States and other NATO allies?

I would like to think so, because that is the way we are going. I am surprised that hon. Gentleman asks that question, given the intensive effort that has gone into ensuring interoperability and compatibility between systems. I draw his attention to what we are seeking to do with the United States on the joint strike fighter, which is a good example of our joining the United States in taking on an advanced aircraft. This is not just about fixed-wing aircraft—it is happening across a whole range of platforms to ensure that we have such interoperability; otherwise NATO cannot effectively deliver the resources that it seeks to, and needs to, in many areas of the world.

Iraq

11. What recent reports he has received from the chiefs of staff on the security situation in Iraq. (105382)

As I have made clear in this House and publicly on many occasions, the security situation in Iraq remains difficult and challenging. However, many parts of the country are relatively stable, with the Iraqi security forces increasingly taking the lead. Sectarian violence remains the key challenge to security, but that is at the top of Prime Minister Maliki’s priorities, and the coalition continues to support him. The successful actions of UK forces in Basra this weekend demonstrate our resolve to help the Iraqi Government to confront sectarian groups and to create the space for the reconciliation process to work. This assessment of the security situation is consistent with the Iraq study group’s assessment as set out on pages 3 to 6 of its report.

Given the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the comments by General Dannatt to the effect that the presence of UK troops in certain parts of the country is exacerbating the security situation, can the Secretary of State tell the House, without giving inappropriate details, if these deployments are continuing, and if so, why?

As General Dannatt made clear in subsequent interviews, his remarks concerned the position of our troops in Maysan province at a particular time when they were subject to a particular type of attack. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that we were in the process of redeploying those troops. They are still in Maysan province in significant numbers, but they are not the tethered goat that some people suggested that they were when they were in a fixed position—they are moving around the province and working more on the border. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s qualifying his question by not inviting me to explain how we might redeploy other troops in future, but he can rest assured that the particular difficulty that we face in fixed positions in Iraq is uppermost in the minds of the commanding officers and of those at the MOD.

May I say at the outset that many of us believe that the Prime Minister should be in the House today making a statement on the Iraq study group? What is good enough for press conferences in the White House and Whitehall should be good enough for the House of Commons.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor said on Iraq:

“We will not stay one day longer than we are needed and wanted by them, but we will not leave one day too early against their wishes or under threat.”—[Official Report, 27 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 542.]

Does he agree that while everyone wants our troops to come home as soon as possible, an explicit timetable, as suggested by the Iraq study group, risks being seen as a green light by insurgents, risks our being blown off course by events, and risks creating more instability in Iraq, not less?

I agree that if we set ourselves a fixed timetable for the removal of our troops from Iraq, we will potentially hand a victory to those who seek to attack our troops in Iraq, and give them a timetable to work to. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the condition-based approach that we have taken to the withdrawal and subsequent draw-down of our troops in Iraq. I am also grateful for the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, especially in a newspaper article that he wrote after his visit to Iraq. We should stick to the strategic approach that we have always taken to the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq—that is, that it should reflect conditions on the ground.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that it would not be in Britain’s national interest to leave behind a destabilised Iraq, teetering on the brink of civil war and potentially drawing in neighbouring states. Does he again agree with his predecessor, who said:

“Our aim is to help the Iraqi people create a functioning democracy with the security to defend it while rebuilding their economy.”?

Is that still the case? Would not creating a false prospectus to leave Iraq be no more honourable than establishing a false prospectus to go into Iraq?

In a speech that I made last month, I outlined the three elements of our strategy. On security, we will build up the army and the police. That includes dealing with police corruption, and that is exactly what we are doing in Operation Sinbad in Basra. We will hand over security province by province, which is exactly what we have been doing in MND South-East. We will move to maintain an overwatch, standing by if we are needed to help the Iraqi forces. As for politics, we will support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, especially their reconciliation programme. In economics, we will help develop basic services, jobs and long-term projects. If that amounts to what the hon. Gentleman described in other words, I agree with him.

Does the Secretary of State believe that there are circumstances in which the American military could stay in Iraq but the British could leave? If so, what are they?

I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to speculate on the circumstances that may exist in the coming months or years. We will continue to work with our coalition partners, especially the United States of America, to ensure that we have a common approach to what we are doing, recognising that we have responsibility for different parts of Iraq, where the conditions may be different from one place to another. However, we must also take into account not only the ability of the Iraqi Government and their security forces, but the Iraqi Government’s wishes.

Reserves

The reserve forces have three primary roles: to augment the regular forces for enduring operations, to provide additional capability for large-scale operations, and to provide specialist capability. Given that the voluntary reserve forces are based at nearly 400 locations throughout the UK, they are ideally placed to fulfil two other important roles: to provide a civil contingency reaction capability for crises in the UK and to maintain links between the military and civilian communities.

Does my hon. Friend not also think that reserve forces, because of their greater age and maturity, and better reflection of the diversity of the population, are often better equipped to deal with civilian populations? Will he pay special tribute to the London Regiment, which is based in my constituency and has had two companies in Basra, to great effect?

I pay tribute to the reserves, including those based in London, for the tremendous job that they do in working with and supporting our regular forces. They do an important job, and as my hon. Friend said, they bring additional skills and qualities, good use of which is made in operational theatre. Their experience will be built on, thus bringing even more quality and success to our operations in future.

Iraq

Some 7,100 members of the UK armed forces are serving on operations in Iraq.

I am grateful for that answer. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient progress is being made in training Iraqi security forces? Does he agree that it is essential for the UK to put maximum pressure on the Iraqi Government to improve their capabilities, so that we can withdraw British troops when that is consistent with not creating a less stable situation in Iraq?

I am satisfied that progress has been made. It would be complacent to suggest from the Dispatch Box that we could not do better in training Iraqi forces, because I believe that we could. However, the forces whom we have dedicated to the role do a magnificent job in training Iraqi forces and also in improving the Iraqi police service, especially as we move through Basra city in Operation Sinbad, as we have done in past months and as we will do in future months. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle the security of that country is key to our ability to draw down. That is not lost on anybody with an understanding of Iraq.

Drug Interdiction (Caribbean)

15. If he will make a statement on the interdiction of narcotics by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean. (105387)

The Royal Navy makes a significant contribution to international counter-drugs operations in the Caribbean. During 2005-06, Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Caribbean were involved in the seizure of more than 14 tonnes of cocaine with a UK street value of approximately £1 billion. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler has been responsible for our most recent successes, seizing 2.9 tonnes of cocaine on 23 November, bringing the total haul of drugs that she has seized or destroyed over the past three months to 11 tonnes.

I congratulate the Royal Navy on that vital work. I have met a number of people involved in drug interdiction work in Latin America and the Caribbean, including our overseas drug liaison officers, who work closely with local authorities in those countries. There is no doubt that that work represents huge value in preventing drugs from arriving here. We could, however, do more. Will he urge our right hon. Friends the Home Secretary—who, I notice, is now in his place—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider providing even more resources for those overseas drug liaison officers, as I believe that that would result in more intelligence and more success for the Royal Navy in interdicting drugs?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government always try to have a comprehensive approach to this matter, whether it is the Royal Navy, the Serious Organised Crime Agency or the drug liaison officers in the countries that are usually the source of cocaine—or part of the food chain for it—that are involved. We take the matter extremely seriously, and I think that that is why we are having more success. The figures that I gave represent about 20 per cent. of the cocaine that would be expected to arrive on Britain’s streets. That is a tremendous achievement, not just for the Royal Navy but for others. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is on the Treasury Bench now, he will have heard my hon. Friend’s question—and like all Ministers at the time of a spending review, we are always looking for ways to encourage those who have the money to be a bit more forthcoming.